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Sometimes, when you've faced death and you're just on the verge of insanity, you come up against a darkness. Sometimes this darkness consumes you, leaving you wallowing in a depression so deep that hell itself seems like a relief. And, sometimes the darkness becomes a strength. Because sometimes the darkness is all you have. When they took Jeldhen from me, I fell into a black pit and smiled. The Shadow Cast considered me a criminal, they had taken my best friend and my humanity was already in question. What more did I have to lose?
“Are you leaving so soon, Krylsorta?”
“I'm heading out as soon as the sun rises, Mizella.”
“One more day, Krylsorta. It couldn't hurt.”
“I've waited long enough.”
“You are not fully healed.”
“News bulletin, Mizella, I'll never be fully healed from this. Now, please, tell your people to cut down the winds so I can leave. I can't stay here one more day, one more hour. I'm leaving and that is final.”
I could feel her approaching objection to the notion that her people were keeping me tied down, but when she spoke, her tone was gentle. “But, Krylsorta––”
“No buts! I'm leaving. Jeldhen has been held captive by the Shadow Cast for almost three months. You can't stall me any longer. All the repairs on WindSong are done. You've healed my wounds. I've even traveled with you this far. But the southern Utah Territories are not Adelaina. I have to carry on.”
“You can't.” Mizella's rich Mediterranean accent had never sounded so blunt.
“And why the bloody hell can't I?”
“It's not in your contract. It's not in your oath. You have sworn to protect our secrets. What do you think they'll get out of you if you're caught? Huh? And even if you aren't, how do you expect to get Jeldhen out of there without completely blowing your cover.”
“You say that as if they don't already know what I am.”
“Alright. So I cannot convince you to stay. At least take one of us with you. What about your sister?”
“I'm not taking anyone. Lia needs to stay here with you. I can't have her getting involved. I've already gotten enough friends into this and look what's happened. Jeldhen, Fes and Elicith are in custody of that bounty hunter. Ve is missing and Cadence is dead. No. No one else is coming with me.”
“That is most unfortunate, but you cannot let the mistakes of your past push you into a worse one now. Take someone with you.”
“Are you volunteering?”
Mizella shook her beautiful, darkly curled head. “No, I have duties here. Grandmother is getting very old. We will need a new Chovihano soon.”
“Whom would you then?”
“What about your friends? The ones that helped us get out of Chicago?”
“Josh and Gabe? No. I can't get them involved in this.”
“They're not far from here.”
“I don't care. I'm going alone and that is final.”
“I see.” With that Mizella tip toed out of the vardo, leaving me to finish packing.
Winter had torn by with all the ferocity I'd come to expect of my recent life. It wouldn't have stopped me, the storms and the snow. Weather had never really been a bother to my flying, but when the Romani are involved in creating those storms... I knew they would be targeting me specifically. Mizella, my Romani guardian, took offense every time I implied such thinking. I'm sure they had their reasons, protecting their own kind. They'd been through so much over the decades, what with the wars and the persecution. Being forced back into the shadows was far from the top of their list of desires.
I tightened the straps on my satchel where it lay on the bed. The majority of my belongings were still on WindSong, not that the Romani had allowed me to sleep there. Something about insulting their sacrifice. I didn't complain. Just being near my little ship brought back such pain that not even the warm food and bright spirits of my companions could keep it at bay. The vardos were warmer in the depths of winter anyway.
Satisfied that all was packed, I took one last lingering glance around the vardo that I'd shared with my sister for the last three months. The two bunks on the far side of the little wagon were strewn with brightly designed quilts and shawls of varying sizes and shapes. The motif of intricacy spread into the wood framing of the beds and out along the walls. Hand cravings of delicate flowers and twisting vines looped and swirled throughout the room, winding their way over spice racks and cupboards and chairs that seemed to sprout out of the floor so similar were they to the wood of the vardo.
In the corner by the door, was a little coat rack which seemed to hold far too many coats and scarves and hats for its diminutive hooks. On the last peg, the one closest to the door hung two jackets of such stark contrast that it seemed impossible to belong to the same person. Both of these jackets were mine. The first, the one from my old life, was a crisp, gray, starched dress coat that flowed to below my knees in the back. Buckles ran all down the back, giving it this rebellious look in contrast to the flattened French collar and cuffs. I'd loved this coat for as long as I could remember. Jeldhen had given it to me on one of our many trips through France. It suited my old life, stiff, controlled, with just a hint of trouble. But so many things had changed about me, I suppose that explains the second jacket.
Pulling the first jacket off the peg, I folded it neatly, and tucked it into the front pocket of my satchel. The second jacket I tugged off with the love of a girl who found comfort in the little things. I slid my arms into its soft leather sleeves, let the pliable fabric settle across the shoulders and move over my skin until it found just the right way to sit. The tassels swished under my arms and across my back as I picked up the satchel and slung it over my shoulder.
Mizella made it, intricate, white, hand stitchery and all. The red-brown die she had used went well with my hair, she had said so one night when she was washing it. It was some sort of little tradition of hers, bonding with me by washing my hair. That was the night I'd insisted that she cut it, against all protestations. It sat short over my shoulders, only just brushing the collar of my leather jacket.
With one last hesitation, I glanced up to look at myself in the heavily embellished, full length mirror. There was something about the woman staring back at me that screamed feral animal. From the heal of her boots to the hunch of her shoulders this woman appeared every bit the cat ready to pounce. Dark red hair tumbled around her face, casting shadows across her dark blue eyes where a story of sadness and rage lay hidden just below the surface. What had happened to me? What happened to the headstrong woman with her posh clothes and long childish braid? Three months ago I had been enjoying the warm autumn of the Greek Isles with my friends. Granted, there was a secret agenda to that visit...
There it was, the answer to all the questions that had haunted me. Duality had followed my life from the time I knew exactly what I was. It was slowly killing me, living two lives, one where I was a normal cargo merchant who pretended not to be in love with her best friend. Another where I was a fire queen with mad fighting skills that was losing battle after battle in a long war for her people's freedom. No wonder I was so brassed.
I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts before facing the world that I was certainly not ready for. Slower than necessary, I pushed the springed door out. The cool wind of a sunny spring day swept up around me, kissing my cheeks with that last little bite of winter before dancing off to throw some leaves about. I didn't used to think of wind in such a personified way, that is not until my winter among the Romani and their uncanny control over all things weather.
“Good morning, Krys.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Leaning against the exterior of the vardo was Lia, my little sister. She looked taller, more mature, more confident. Her unruly black hair was pulled back into a knot at the nape of her neck. Her normal attention to fashion had fallen into the lax form of blue denim, peasant blouses and long draping cardigans. That particular day her usual look was accompanied by work gloves and a felt hat. I guess I wasn't the only one that had changed.
“What do you want?” I bounced down the stairs and letting the door slam shut behind me. Without waiting for an answer, I headed toward my ship, my one hope at getting out of this caravan. Lia followed with an excitedly hopping gate.
“I'm coming with you,” she said with a grin, as she passed me.
“No, you're not.”
She turned around, walking backwards, her hands shoved deep in her pockets. “Yes, I am.”
“We've been over this, Lia. You're not coming with me. I'm going alone.”
Lia stepped in front of me, effectively cutting me off. “As if you're the only one that cares about Jeldhen's safety? Right. I'm coming with you.”
I made to move around her, but she sidestepped. Left with little other choice, I moved the other way, but Lia slid in front of me with a look of mockery. Seeing how that wasn't going to work, I attempted to brush by her, but Lia, being Lia, wasn't about to take that. She stuck her arm our in front of me.
“Krys, you've got to let me come with you.”
For an instant, I stopped fighting to get past her. “Why are you so insistent on this?”
“Why are you?”
“Because I'm not going to endanger any more of my friends for my own fool's errand.”
“I'm not a friend, I'm family. And I'm worried you're going just to get yourself killed. Because frankly, I don't trust your crazy British self not to get you killed.”
Ignoring her evident concern, I insisted on making my case clear. “You being family only makes it worse! What would I tell your mum if something happened to you?”
“That I'm fifteen now, which makes me an adult and old enough to make my own decisions. Besides, Jeldhen is my family too, whether you like it of not. One day you two are going to get hitched and I'm going to be your maid of honor and then Jeldhen will be my brother. And how do you expect me to live with myself if I'm not there at just the right moment to help you rescue Jeldhen, huh? How am I ever going to be your maid of honor if Jeldhen is in some messed up prison for the criminally bizarre?”
I blinked at my sister with baffled gratitude. Leave it to her to make helping me a selfish thing matter... even if everything she said was little more than a fabrication of her mind. “Alright, if it means that much to you.”
I expected her to jump and strangle me with one of her crazy American hugs, but she didn't. She just smirked in satisfaction. “I'll go tell the others.”
“Oh no. I'm not bringing anyone. You know what happened last time.”
She looked disappointed, but understanding. “Alright.”
“We take off in twenty minutes. If you aren't there, I'm leaving without you.”
“You've got it.”
I fully anticipated her meeting me up at WindSong with a gaggle of able-bodied warrior women. They wouldn't dare ask the men to go with us, not with the cultural taboos of mingling men and women. Either way, I wouldn't have been able to handle more than the two girls, not after what happened to Fes.
Finally free of my sister, I plowed through the caravan which had nearly tripled in size between here and Chicago now bringing the number of vardo up to forty. If I saw one more person, if I heard one more voice trying to convince me to take someone else with me, well, let's just say that all bets were off as to just how fire proof the vardo were.
Slithering through the tight gaps between the vardo proved more difficult than anticipated. Most of the wheels came up to my shoulder height, giving me plenty of space beneath the gypsy wagons to duck into should someone happen by. I hadn't gotten through the innermost tangled ring of wagons before I was forced to change course. Tucking my arm under, I rolled beneath the vardo to my left to avoid making contact, but the boy was already there, his dark eyes watching me in the predawn light.
I knew him at once as the same boy that Fes had embraced when we'd first joined the little caravan. This was Fes's husband, the very boy I'd been avoiding for three months. Seeing those dark, mysterious eyes brought back memories of Fes and it became hard to breathe. Her voice had haunted me since the destruction of Chicago.
The way Mizella told it Fes had been nearly decapitated by one Commandant Ero Gleilien before being dragged from the smoldering wreckage of the Chicago library. I had been there, had heard the screams, had set the building ablaze, but that image seemed beyond believable. Something happened to Ero that incapacitated her, I remember hearing her body hit the floor, but my mind was too taxed to remember.
My fight, from Navy Pier through the Library, drained me beyond the point of exhaustion. Only vaguely the memory drifted back to me of a man called Terrance speaking to me, but the consuming fire that had burned inside me blotted out all details of the event save one: Fes's voice echoing through the marble halls, screaming my name.
I tried to push the sound of her strangled pleas for help to the back of my mind as her young husband approached me through the narrow channel in which I stood. My hands began to shake uncontrollably, my heart raced. Fear, genuine fear, surged through my veins. Send me the Seekers and the demons and even the armies of hell, but I could not face this boy. Not again. I can't explain my fright of him, not fully anyway. Maybe I felt I needed to give him a decent explanation of those night's events, of why I hadn't saved her when she called for me, an explanation I couldn't give. Or maybe it was just that I knew I owed him a rescue mission. Well, I was about to embark on that mission and, though I was hell bound on delivering Jeldhen from horrors worse I'd suffered, I would get him back his wife.
Given that determination and the goals I had in mind, I should have been able to face him without so much as batting an eye. Our previous encounters, however, had left me on the bottom side of the sinking ship that was this boy's mental state. If I had been broken by the loss of Jeldhen, I could only imagine what it must have been like for this sixteen-year-old to loose his wife of only a few months.
In a panic, I rolled onto the ground once more, forcing myself to slither on my belly until I felt I'd reached a safe enough distance to escape his unforgiving gaze. How I longed to be in the air again, above the threats of being grounded, of having nowhere to run.
On my feet again, I ran through the gap between the inner circle and outer circle of the gypsy wagons. WindSong was just on the other side and a little to the south. Her patch-worked metal body, barely visible over the tops of the wagons, glinted ever so slightly as the sun peaked over the tops of the looming mountains. The light crept from the far wast of the valley, bringing with it the brilliance of a new day, and all the drudgery that came with it.
“Promise me something.”
The boy's strong voice was hard to ignore. The plaintive undercurrents struck a nerve that I couldn't quite name, but it was not enough to make me turn around. WindSong was well within sight, waiting for me. I would have started running, frantic as I was to get away from my little problem, but his arm was around my wrist. He'd have to stay in isolation for two weeks for touching a female, but the look in his dark eyes told me that he didn't care.
“Let go.” It was a warning more than a command.
“Not until you promise me something.”
“I'm not taking you with me, if that's what you're asking.”
He shook his head, sending dark mahogany curls tumbling over his eyes.
“Then what is it?”
“Promise me that you'll bring her back.”
It occurred to me then where the cord had struck, where the trail of memory lead to. I'd taken that tone with Jeldhen all those months ago, when I'd begged him not to take the assignment that had gotten him into all those months ago. Once I'd known how it felt, that overwhelming desire to keep your loved ones safe. That feeling seemed dead in me, but that didn't stop me from knowing exactly how this boy felt.
Our eyes locked and I no longer thought of him as a boy. He was barely more than a year younger than me, yet this whole time I had thought of him as little more than a child. Fes was his family. It was his duty to protect her. I'd seen the look on his face when we brought her home, he loved her. He would do anything for her. There was little difference between us in that respect.
“What's your name?” It had only just occurred to me that I'd never asked before. I'd always referred to him as 'Fes's husband', or 'that boy', or 'you', never by a name.
“Temki. My name is Temki.”
“I'll bring her back, Temki. That I promise you.” It occurred to me then that some part of me wanted him to come with me, the part that hadn't completely given in to the black depths inside. He could be an asset, or he could get in the way.
His dark eyes bored into mine with such intensity that the very earth beneath my feet seemed to temporarily give way. The grip of his hand around my wrist seemed a choke hold, taking away my strength. The thought that he needed to come with me intensified until I had all but spoken the words.
“I know what you're doing,” I whispered. “And it's not going to work.”
Temki's grip lessened and I could feel him about to let go entirely when someone walked by and jabbed me in the elbow.
“I thought you said you'd be leaving without me if I didn't hurry up, sis. Now look who's running late.” Lia continued to walk by, laughing a little. She had a box in her arms.
Curious as I was about the contents of the box, I didn't bother asking Lia about it. Instead, I made a snap decision. Turning to Temki I spoke quickly. “I'm not sure exactly what that talent of yours is, but I'm sure we can use it to get Fes out. Go get your bag, tell your family you're coming with us.”
“But, you just said––”
“Forget what I just said. You're coming, just... don't get in my way, alright?”
Temki nodded once and we released each other's arms.
What was I doing? I didn't know if I could trust him, if his emotions would get in the way of my mission. What if he had his own directive? There were too many variables to calculate, too many strings to attach. He could be a fly on wall, waiting to attack us in the dark when we slept through fitful dreams. Given what I assumed was his ability, I knew he had a power over me. I'd have to threaten him, give him a thrashing. That's the only way to get through to them, the only way to get Jeldhen back. I had to kill him, Constantine.
“Snap out of it!” The shout came from my mouth, though I didn't remember speaking it.
“Are you okay, Krys?” Lia called back.
“Yeah,” I muttered as I caught up to her. “Yeah, I'm fine.”
“What was all that about?”
“Temki's coming with us.”
“Okay... So, where's he gonna sleep?”
“Haven't thought of that yet.”
“And what happened to this 'I'm not taking anyone' business?”
“I'm not really sure.”
“Do you wanna tell––”
“I don't really want to talk about it right now, Lia.”
She gave me a testy look as we neared WindSong's underbelly, giving me the distinct feeling that if something were to go terribly wrong she would wholeheartedly blame me.